Resource Extraction and Ecuador’s Fragile Ecological Sustainability

By Peter Redvers-Lee

Yasuní National Park /Photo credit: joshbousel / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Yasuní National Park /Photo credit: joshbousel / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

The world has failed Ecuador again.  That, at least, is the sentiment of Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, explaining his decision to discontinue an innovative environmental plan to save sections of the Yasuní National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve on the border with Peru.  The 2010 plan was for Ecuador to refrain from granting oil concessions in the park if it could raise $3.6 billion from other countries and international organizations.  To date, only $13 million has been raised.  Correa’s about-face comes a few months after another environmental U-turn.  In June, Ecuador’s legislature passed a new mining law that, while not garnering new friends among large mining companies, rolls back taxes and other regulations to favor smaller and medium-size mining ventures.

Both developments heighten the likelihood of further environmental degradation in Ecuador.  Increased mining and drilling is likely to have an immediate and negative impact on the sustainability of local ecosystems upon which communities depend.  The rivers that make up the Mataje-Cayapas watershed have been an important means of livelihood for the local indigenous and African-descendent communities that dot the river banks from the mangroves on the coast to the foothills of the Andes.  Environmental degradation accelerated in the 1990s, when the first major roads reached the area and mining, logging, shrimp farming and other industries moved in.  Mercury, used in mining, is already present at unacceptable levels in populations of blue crabs in the lower reaches of the watershed, where the crab forms a staple in local diets.  The destruction of the mangrove forests to make way for shrimp ponds has increased.  The roads allowed for more efficient logging, and increasing numbers of internal migrants flooded the area.  Once the Chocó forest was cleared, palm plantations took root, further displacing African-descendent communities that made up the bulk of the local inhabitants.  The African palm, used for biofuels and other purposes, often entails liberal use of toxic chemicals.

The failure of the Yasuní proposal and Ecuador’s new mining laws have ominous implications for Ecuador and, perhaps, beyond.  Toxins in the Mataje-Cayapas watershed have contaminated the water supply on which thousands of mainly African-descendent communities rely for their livelihoods.  The recent setbacks will also accelerate commercial exploitation of the watershed for gold, exposing it to even more toxic chemicals, and the ever-increasing palm plantations will add to the existing brew of fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides sprayed liberally on the crop.  It’s unclear whether the world “failed” Ecuador or that President Correa’s proposal – protecting preserves in return for cash – is not viable.  Skepticism that the $3.6 billion would be put to good use, rather than for politically gratifying short-term programs, is also reasonable.  Either way, the country’s long-running pattern of resource extraction and environmental destruction continues in one of the most diverse ecological spots on earth.  And now Yasuní faces a similar fate.

Peter Redvers-Lee is CLALS Faculty Affiliate and Professorial Lecturer in American University’s School of International Service.  He has worked in the Mataje-Cayapas watershed since 2004.

Emerging Engines for Latin American Economies? The Potential of Cultural and Creative Industries

By Robert Albro
Associate Research Professor, CLALS

Filming in Chile / Photo credit: Patt V / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Filming in Chile / Photo credit: Patt V / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

In global terms Latin America’s economy is expected to grow at a relatively brisk 4% in 2013. In the medium-term, however, the picture is not as rosy, since this growth is largely sustained by the export of natural resources and raw materials, the demand for which is expected to slow. If Latin America hopes to continue to enjoy economic growth and stability, other sectors will need to emerge. One strong candidate is cultural and creative industries, a sector that includes all copyrightable entertainment, education, information, and other cultural goods and services, like film, T.V., music, or video games, but also tourism and local heritage products. One of the world’s fastest growing sectors, it has quadrupled its share of world trade since 1995. In 2012 it represented an estimated $2.2 trillion, or 11% of the global total. Cultural and creative industries are also seen as largely immune to the ups and downs of the business cycle. At the height of the recession in 2008, global trade declined by 12%, while trade in creative goods increased by 14%.

Signs that the creative industries are taking off in Latin America are widespread. As the 2010 Creative Economy Report noted, regional governments are now actively promoting policies for this sector, including to incentivize tourism, create new cultural infrastructure, and increase intellectual property protection. South America’s MERCOSUR Cultural, a regional network of over 400 institutions, is centralizing country-based cultural data. Latin America’s film industry is resurgent, with more than 600 million gate receipts last year, and in 2011 Mexico’s television content distribution business alone topped an estimated $251 billion. As a burgeoning tech start-up hotspot, Chile has also become an important video game incubator. Buenos Aires’s design industry is a global player with double digit growth that accounts for 3% of Argentina’s total economy. Designated a UNESCO “creative city” in 2012, Bogotá is now the focus of major government investment as a center of music innovation. Meanwhile, in Brazil the new Creative Rio Program has been launched to enhance that city’s creative economy.

If there is cause for optimism, significant barriers remain. Cities rather than countries are the critical units of scale, as cultural platforms and global nodes in an emerging information economy. But the persistent lack of citizen security across Latin America’s cities is likely to undermine the sustainable development of this sector. The creative industries are also highly unevenly distributed throughout Latin America. Audiovisual production, for example, is limited to Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. Cultural goods and services, too, can become vehicles for regional concerns about the threats posed by globalization, leading to trade frictions. Most importantly, a thorough assessment of the organization and diversity of the region’s cultural and creative industries has yet to be done, debilitating future strategic decision-making. Assessment of this sector is undermined by inadequate or incomplete metrics. But even with metrics in hand, how to make best sense of these in ways that account for the exceptional status of cultural goods as key sources of collective identity, community well-being and quality of life remains a real challenge, one which CLALS is currently partnering with the Inter-American Development Bank to address.